Amel's Grandmother The Passage of Time (Originally published on the Gilded Serpent)
By Amel Tafsout

Since I was a child I was fascinated by dancers, mostly by performers with a “respectful age” - a usage in French meaning elderly people. I remember the first time I saw the Flamenco dancer called “La Chana” from Cumbre Flamenca.

Her performance brought tears to my eyes; not only was she technically outstanding, but she had a whole persona, stage presence and her aura… no younger dancer could be compared to her. Many times I went to see the show to watch her again and again!

When I went to Cuba, I was blessed to study with a master dancer: Gregorio. We didn’t share the same language (only a little bit of French) but we managed to communicate through the dance and the music. He was much older than I, but his experience and knowledge of his art was amazing. He was also a singer and both his dance and his voice brought me a very special learning experience. I came to love watching elderly couples dancing the Cuban rumba together, everything flowing, not needing to be so technical and gliding together as if they were walking above water. It is a joy to see their mature grace and joy, unencumbered by the frantic turns and jumps that young performers are doing in competitive ballroom dancing.

Picture on right: Amel's Grandmother. Picture Below: Celia Cruz
Celia Cruz
I remember the day I went to see a special concert of the Cuban Diva Celia Cruz (may she rest in peace)... Her voice and her energy were incredible. Though she must have been in her mid-sixties at that time, when she started dancing she became 16 years old again. She enjoyed every movement and everyone could see that she was a master dancer. Despite her respectful age she was very sensual and very playful. While she danced, her joy of life became so contagious that even very reserved British people, men and women, young and seniors, joined in dancing and clapping.

Another performer of advancing age, close to my heart, is the legendary Algerian "Empress of Rai music", Cheikha Rimitti (May her soul rest in peace). As a child I already knew of her, but Algerian people spoke her name with a very quiet voice - her music was not accepted by the establishment and her songs were listened to in secret by the male population.
Gregorio
She struggled against the odds, growing up as a homeless orphan in the west of Algeria, a French colony at the time. During World War II, the presence of the French military encouraged the rise of café bars. This changed the culture and the lives of musicians.

Cheikha Rimitti led a wild life, dancing until early morning with a band of traditional musicians with whom she sang and played percussion. Her early musical influences were traditional female performers, the Shikhat and the Meddahat.

The Meddahat are singers and musicians who play violin and percussion, performimg only for women. The Shikhat are women performers in Western Algeria and Morocco who perform often for men and women, singing and dancing at various festivities, including weddings, births and religious ceremonies.

The Shikhat are marginalized in so-called respectable society because they overstep cultural boundaries by singing about their intimate private lives. Today, a typical troupe includes up to ten women. However, once these women become famous and begin recording, they start a solo career. They sing in the language of the street about love, immigration, and the struggle to survive poverty. In many cases their lyrics are intentionally ambiguous, enabling them to escape censorship.
Picture above right: "This is my Cuban Dance teacher Gregorio (known as Goyo)"
Picture below right: Cheikha Rimitti performing where you can see her dancing and singing.


Cheikha Remitti
This is a particular technique of "women’s language" which allows for poetic audacities and daring gestures. It is very common for these women to become increasingly popular as they grow older, as "the passage of time" does not affect their performance and enhances the respect they command.

Cheikha Rimiti’s first improvised verses were inspired by the terrible epidemics, such as the plague in the region mentioned in Albert Camus’ 1947 novel “The Plague”. She established her career singing about the hardship of women’s lives and the repugnant attitude of men towards their young brides.

In her live performances, Cheikha Rimitti had the power to transport Algerians living abroad back to their roots. With facial expressions, her typical shoulder movements as her famous dance steps, even at the age of 78 she gave free reign to her talents, which included a superb comedic sense. Well-known for her hennaed hands beautifully decorated with Berber tattoos, she used them to introduce the song and play the bendir frame drum. In authentic Wahrani dress and jewelry, she appeared like a mythical priestess. When I met her in her later years, she would really come alive only on stage; during the day she would look very tired.

But on stage! She became a very young girl, dancing, singing and playing like a teenager. Her manager would try to give her a cue to stop but she would ignore him and carried on, enjoying herself with her audience. That is the moment where she was alive, living every second of her art.

She didn't perform in large venues until 1982. Late in life, she appeared all over the world to adoring audiences. She died in 2006, just after her big performance in the
Cheikha and Amel Zenith Theater in Paris, at the "respectable age" of 83. Cheikha Rimitti was a great inspiration to me. When she met me the first time she told me that I reminded her of herself. I was very honored by her statement as she represented so much for me – the connection to my own roots.

Meeting Rimitti, I realized how much I missed the women of my family, especially my grandmother (May she rest in peace). My grand-mother was like a Queen: She walked like a Queen… Spoke like a Queen… Danced like a Queen. She had an aura that everybody liked to be around.

She kept her beauty, her elegance and her authority as she aged. I remember how she put her head-dress on, how much time she took to wrap her melhafa (similiar to a Tunisian meliya) around her body, how she wore her jewelry. Every gesture became a dance movement, a ritual honoring life.

She taught me to honor myself and others as she did. She taught me to know when to listen and be quiet and when to speak. She taught me to pray… I had to practice many times while she was watching me from her chair and listening to me reciting my prayers to make sure that I was performing them correctly. She was very strict about it and I was trying my best because I wanted her to be proud of me. I had to try not to look at her, to avoid bursting out laughing from embarrassment. Sometimes I had to prepare my little prayer rug parallel to hers and we would perform the prayer together. When I look back at my childhood I remember how much fun I had with my grandmother, how much I respect her, and I am filled with gratitude for all her teaching. She taught me so much and I cherish these memories very much.

I used to dance with her holding her hand. As a child, I had to lift my head to look at her, which gave me the impression that she was so tall that I couldn’t reach her. I remember the feel of the fabric of her dress caressing my face. Her dress was dancing with me, helping me to move as well as comforting me in telling me "Everything is alright just look at how I am doing it!" It was such a beautiful feeling to go with the flow and play with my grandmother’s dress!

In Algeria, as in so many other cultures, we learn dancing at home with our grandmothers, mothers and aunties. The first lesson would be during a celebration. As a child, we would try to dance the dance of older women, and imitate them because we wanted to be grown up so badly. It is very common that during a wedding ceremony the grandmother is the first person to open the dance.

The grandmother’s dance performance is considered as a great blessing to her grandchild. It is also a way for the grandmother’s to make the situation more relaxed and prepare her grandchild for her future life.

The women’s tradition of offering a dance as a wedding present to the bride is very common in the Arab World. What is beautiful about it is how we honor these grandmothers for their wisdom and their knowledge. It saddens me to observe in the west how every one is manipulated by the media to believe that women to be beautiful must be young and slim. I see the elderly segregated into special communities and excluded from the mainstream society.

In so many other cultures less affected by the worship of youth, seniors are included in multi-generational families and everyone feels concerned about them.

Bisakha Saker Fortunately, other artists are at work engaging directly with issues that relate to performance and aging. Recently I was honored to be invited by my dear friend, Indian dance performer Bisakha Saker, to be part of the first “Marks of Time” conference, held in Liverpool, England, which explored performance practice in advancing years. I was very excited to be part of a conference that touches on performance and aging, a subject not often addressed although it does concern all dance styles. The conference was run in partnership with Hope University. 80 participants and performers attended, and this groundbreaking event was a real inspiration for all concerned. The highlight was Bisakha Saker’s performance with a poem called “ The Two Pots.”

Another inspiration is Germaine Acogny, an African dance master who I met when I lived in Germany in the 1980s. A legend in her native Senegal and beyond, she is a major figure in African dance, blending contemporary dance with traditional African styles. Germaine continues to perform, and talking about the differences between different generations, she said: “I cannot do what they can do, yet they cannot do what I can do!” In addition to performing her own works and choreographing for her dance company Jant-Bi, she generously shares her wisdom and experience with young dancers and encourages them to develop their own individual styles of expression. To see her perform is to see into the core of the dance, which never ages, and to recognize the power that can only come from decades of experience.

Picture on right: Bisakha Saker

Outside the world of MTV, professional female performers are respected well into their senior years. Wherever music and dance has a function in their society to communicate traditions, the singers, musicians and dancers are respected.

Now living in the United States, I find it a great loss to see the extent to which social dance as such has disappeared, replaced by dance as stage performance.

Stage dance choreographers require dancers at the extremes of athletic competence and the promoters expect extremes of standards for appearance - tall, thin, young… do senior professional dancers have no chance? Should we all give up as we age past these specific requirements?

Middle Eastern dance became very popular in the West and specifically in the U.S., largely through the social need for empowerment among women yearning to feel acceptance in their own, un-MTV bodies. Today we see the evidence that this dance style too has become demanding and competitive, as we witness the phenomena of the “ Belly Dance Super Stars”. This representation to US and European audiences that it is the top of the genre has systematically excluded more experienced mature dancers known for their knowledge and their motivation to bring to western audiences an understanding of the respect this dance form demands.

I wonder if the producers of these shows are so confused about competence and age! It is likely that they are underestimating the willingness of their audience to appreciate beauty in aging forms.

In general, Western society needs to extend to senior dance performers the respect they seem fully able to grant older singers or musicians. As long as I am healthy and enjoy the dance, I will dance, and feel connected with my roots and the spirit of my ancestors.

Picture below: Germaine Acogny my African dance teacher and friend

Germaine Acogny

 

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